Troublesome Topic: Why Is it Important to Understand the Three Types of Covenants?

Lesson 9 of 10

In order to better understand God’s dealings with mankind it is imperative that we understand what kind of relationship God was establishing with man. There are three types of covenants that were common in that day and all three are found in Scripture. However not all three of these can be applied to God’s relationship with man. The three types are:

  1. A covenant between equals (e.g. David and Jonathan)
  2.  A royal grant (e.g. God with Abram)
  3. A Suzerain/Vassal covenant (God with Israel at Sinai).

The Covenant Between Equals

The covenant between equals was a way for each to commit to the other that he would protect and care for the other, and seek the other’s well-being. The covenant between David and Jonathan is probably the best-known example of this kind of covenant in scripture. In a covenant between equals the key phrase used to pledge themselves to each other was “we are brothers,” or “you are my brother.” As confirmation of this pledge they exchanged about everything that was not surgically attached to their bodies; they exchanged outer cloaks, money bags, and weapons they were carrying. The result was that David, a shepherd, and the king’s servant, came out of the deal looking pretty good, and Jonathan, the king’s son, came out looking like a common shepherd. Of course Jonathan had other robes, but the symbolism of the exchange could not have been more striking.

God, never, and I repeat NEVER, established a covenant relationship with man as a covenant between equals!

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In no way, shape or form do we qualify as God’s equals. In none of the covenantal relationships God established with man did He turn over all His wealth to be left with our miserable poverty. Nowhere did He relinquish all His power to us, and permanently take our limitations as His own. If God has made some of His power available to us today it is because His Spirit lives in us, not because He has made a covenant with us as equals. When Jesus came in human flesh, He did not raise us to the level of God; He lowered himself to our level.

Sometimes, in covenants between equals, the participants exchanged names as well. However, in other types of covenant relationships the lesser would take on the name of the greater as a sign of loyalty. The fact that we have taken on God’s name is not proof that we are in a covenant between equals, because God has not taken on our name, he remains unchanged. We have taken on His name as the lesser of the two parties in a covenant between a sovereign authority and his humble subjects (a Suzerain/Vassal covenant). It is also a part of being adopted into His family.

Not all covenants between equals involved all of the characteristics mentioned above. Sometimes they simply made a covenant to indicate that they would not fight against each other; this was a simplified version of the covenant between equals (examples are Abraham and Abimelech, or Jacob and Laban).

A Royal Grant

A Royal Grant was when a person in authority granted one of his subjects a special gift or reward, usually for having been faithful or for having done something special. Once again the emphasis is on the relationship, and by this means that relationship is brought to a new level. We see examples of this in scripture when a king would say to someone, “from now on you will eat at my table, you shall have this amount of land and this amount of cattle,” etc.

God’s covenant with Abram was not entirely because Abram had obeyed and left his home to go wherever God would lead him, but it was primarily due to God’s grace. Even though Abram had been faithful and obedient, he did not deserve the amazing offer of salvation promised to him. This covenant is most like the covenants called royal grants because it is all the Lord’s decision, not a mutual decision between the two.

If you are wondering if God’s covenant with Abram was conditional or unconditional click on this link Was God’s Covenant with Abram Conditional, Unconditional, or Neither?

The Suzerain/Vassal Covenant

The third kind of covenant commonly known in those days was what is called theSuzerain/Vassal covenant. This was a covenant established between a powerful ruler and a weaker nation, usually one which had just been subjugated to the authority of the greater, but not destroyed. In this covenant agreement both parties committed themselves to fulfilling their obligations, but it was the vassals, the conquered ones, who were in the hot seat. The Suzerain, or the sovereign ruler, made all the rules; the weaker party simply agreed to follow them, or suffered the fate that less fortunate victims had already suffered.

Of the three kinds of covenants known in ancient times, this was the most complex, with the possibility of a great number of details being included in the covenant agreement. A large number of details was not required, but was customary because the new ruler was basically rewriting the laws that would govern that nation. The volume of information was handled by writing things down, part on stone, and part on papyrus or parchment. The part written on stone was a summary of the covenant relationship, the details were then delineated on the parchment.

Why isn’t the covenant of salt mentioned in my list of types of covenants?

The phrase “covenant of salt” is mentioned three times in Scripture, Lev 2:13, Numb 18:19 and II Chron 13:5.

Ancient covenant inauguration ceremonies often involved the eating of a meal together. They made sure to include salt in the food that was eaten during that ceremony. Salt represented things that were durable and perpetual, and the eating of food with salt in it constituted a sacred bond of friendship. This was a common practice among ancient cultures of the Near East (we call it the Middle East), so common that the phrase “covenant of salt” came to be used of any serious covenant (and every covenant should be serious, or it is not a covenant).

For that reason, the phrase “covenant of salt” did not refer to a different type of covenant but was a different way of referring to a sure and serious covenant. None of the cases of the phrase “covenant of salt” found in the Bible refer to a covenant of God with man that is not already one of the three types of covenants listed above.

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For the full length series on Covenants, the next lesson is A Covenant Before the Flood?

For the mid-length series and the short series on covenants, the next lesson is God’s Covenant with Noah.



Bruce Waltke’s article “The Phenomenon of Conditionality with Unconditional Covenants” in the book Israel’s Apostasy and Restoration, edited by AvrahamrnGileadi, pgs. 123-124.


Leviticus 2:13 is a reminder that they should never leave the salt out of a grain offering. This was part of the Suzerain/vassal covenant that God had established with Israel; it was not anything new or separate, rather it served as a constant reminder of their commitment to the Covenant God gave them at Sinai.

In Numbers 18:19 God was reminding the priests of the many things that He had given them as part of the covenant agreement in exchange for their service at the temple. Here He says that all the offerings that are raised up (probably referring to the grain offerings) that the children of Israel brought to the Lord belonged to them as “payment” for their service. This is called a permanent ordinance. Notice the use of the reference to “permanence” which was one of the symbolic meanings of salt. Then God called this a covenant of salt. He was referring to the covenant He had already made with the Israelites, but he referred to it here as a covenant of salt in order to highlight its seriousness, and the way that the people were required to constantly focus on it. It was not a new covenant, but a reminder of the one they were already in.

The last instance is that of II Chron 13:5. Here King Abijah is shouting across a large open space to King Jeroboam and the warriors of the Northern Tribes in an attempt to convince them not to enter into war against his army, the army of the Southern Tribes. His logic was that the Southern Tribes were still faithful to God, but the Northern Tribes were not, therefore God would assist the Southern Tribes, but not those from the North. In his speech he said that YHVH (substitute Adonai), the God of Israel had given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever as a “covenant of salt.”

The account of God’s Royal Grant Covenant with David found in I Chronicles 17 does not say anything about salt, or a meal. Abijah said it the way he did in order to show the seriousness of the covenant. But when was there salt involved? It was only involved as David and the rest of God’s people obeyed God’s law (the covenant at Sinai) by including salt in the grain offering. It was made a covenant of salt only as the people under the covenant fulfilled its regulation about a constant reminder of their commitment to that covenant.

Thus this was not a new type of covenant, rather a way to mention David’s faithfulness to God’s Law. Once again, this was a way of saying that because the descendants of David were faithful to God, they would have God’s assistance in this battle (no mention is made of Solomon’s apostacy, but the general idea was more true of the Southern Tribes than of the Northern Tribes).